New Delhi: After US President Donald Trump caused a major stir by claiming that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also asked him to be a “mediator” between Pakistan and India in the Kashmir issue, India has asserted that “no such request” was made.
While Trump has talked about his eagerness to play mediator in the Kashmir issue before, this is the first time that the US president has said that the India also wants help in resolving the situation.
US President Donald Trump’s response to #Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan asking for support to push peace talks with #India.
“I met Indian PM Modi two weeks ago.. he asked me, do you want to be mediator, arbitrator.. I asked where? He said #Kashmir” pic.twitter.com/odOS7e5uKe
— Devirupa Mitra (@DevirupaM) July 22, 2019
Trump met Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, accompanied by army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, at the White House on Monday for the first time since the election of both leaders. The Pakistan prime minister is in the US on a three-day working visit.
During an interaction with reporters before their talks, a question was posed to both of them as to whether the US had had a role to play in bringing peace to the subcontinent.
Imran said he had been trying to hold peace talks with India, but to no avail. He then added that he hoped that President Trump could “push forward the process”.
India has refused to restart peace talks for the last four years, stating that the ball was in Pakistan’s court to stop cross-border terrorism first.
Trump then stated that he had met Modi two weeks ago, where the latter had asked him to be an arbitrator on Kashmir. Modi and Trump had met in Osaka on the sidelines of the G-20 summit.
“I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago…We talked about this subject. He actually asked me, would you like to be mediator or arbitrator. I asked where? He said Kashmir, because this has been going on for many, many years.”
When Trump said that he was actually surprised by the number of years the Kashmir issue has been going on, Imran added, “Seventy years”.
Trump then went on to say that he thought “they” would like to see it resolved. “I think you would like to see it resolved and if I can help, I would love to be a mediator. It is impossible to believe that two incredible countries that are very, very smart and very smart leadership can’t solve it… but if you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do it,” he said.
Khan then interceded that Trump would have the “prayers of a billion people” if he could indeed mediate on it.
“It should be resolved. So it — but he [Modi] asked me the same, so I think there’s something. So maybe we will speak to him or I will speak to him and we will see what we can do,” said the US president.
Just before he ended his remarks, Trump also spoke about the violence inside Kashmir.
“Because I have heard so much about Kashmir. It is such a beautiful name. Supposed to be such a beautiful part of the world.. but right now, there are just bombs all [over] the place,” he said.
During an earlier question during his 40-minute media interaction, Trump had said that India would be a “very big part of our conversation”. “And I think maybe if we can help intercede and do whatever we have to do. But I think it’s something that can be brought back together.”
Just before Khan landed in US, Trump had tweeted that the arrest of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, chief Hafez Saeed after a “ten-year-search” was due to American pressure.
Towards the end of the press availability at the Oval Office, Trump was asked whether he will stop India from “destabilising” Pakistan by sponsoring non-state actors.
“I do think that it’s a two-way street. You know, you say India is coming in and destabilising Pakistan, but India is saying that Pakistan is coming in and destabilising. So there’s a lot of room right there where we can meet. I think we can meet,” he replied.
Indicating the seriousness with which India took Trump’s remarks, a denial was issued within two hours by the Indian government. Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted a little after midnight in Delhi:
We have seen @POTUS‘s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India & Pakistan, on Kashmir issue. No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to US President. It has been India’s consistent position…1/2
— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) July 22, 2019
He also reiterated India’s position that Kashmir is a bilateral dispute and had to be resolved within the context of bilateral agreements. “It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism. The Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India & Pakistan bilaterally”.
Five hours later, the State Department waded into the controversy.
— State_SCA (@State_SCA) July 22, 2019
Acting Assistant Secretary Alice G. Wells, who heads the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, posted a tweet with her initials. “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes #Pakistan and #India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist. – AGW,” she posted. There was no mention about the US president’s remarks, or India’s denial, but it was clearly an effort to sooth ties in a way that didn’t impact the ongoing visit by the Pakistan prime minister or leave the Indians fuming.
Meanwhile, the Indian ambassador to US, Harsh Shringla, fielded phone calls from two important Democrat congressmen, who wanted to express solidarity with the Indian government’s stance on Kashmir.
House foreign affairs committee chair Elliot Engel told Shringla that he supported USs’ “long standing position on Kashmir dispute”.
According to a read-out of the conversation issued by his office, Engel reiterated that he “supported dialogue between India and Pakistan, but reaffirmed that the dialogue’s pace and scope can only be determined by India and Pakistan”.
Engel also stated that for any meaningful dialogue, Islamabad “must first take concrete and irreversible steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil”.
The read-out did not give any context for this phone call and made no mention of Trump.
However, his colleague on the committee, veteran Democrat congressman Brad Sherman, had no qualms about directly referring to Trump and describing his claims as “amateurish and delusional”.
Everyone who knows anything about foreign policy in South Asia knows that #India consistently opposes third-party mediation re #Kashmir. Everyone knows PM Modi would never suggest such a thing. Trump’s statement is amateurish and delusional. And embarrassing. 1/2
— Rep. Brad Sherman (@BradSherman) July 22, 2019
Stating that India has always consistently opposed third-party mediation in Kashmir, Sherman tweeted that he apologised to the Indian ambassador for “Trump’s amateurish and embarrassing mistake”.
Focus on Afghanistan
While Trump’s Kashmir words attracted attention, it was clear from his public remarks that his main talking point with Pakistan was Afghanistan. His Pakistani guest was quick to take advantage of Trump’s priority.
“I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves. We’re like policemen. We’re not fighting the war,” Trump told reporters.
The US president then seemed to indicate that there were war plans to combat jihadis in Afghanistan that could kill millions of people.
“If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. Does that make sense to you? I don’t want to kill 10 million people. I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in — literally, in 10 days. And I don’t want to do — I don’t want to go that route,” Trump noted.
He stated that there had been forward movement in the peace talks with Afghan Taliban and praised Pakistan for its support.
“We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress,” Trump said.
Khan complimented Trump for having “forced people to end the war” and reach a settlement.
The former Pakistan cricket captain extolled Pakistan’s “very important role” in solving the Afghan imbroglio by dint of its 1,500-border with Afghanistan. “I can assure President Trump that whatever we will be saying will be the — we will be straight with them. There will never be any question of any doubt on Pakistan’s intent, because apart from Afghanistan, the country that wants peace in Afghanistan more than any other country is Pakistan because we get directly affected by it,” said Khan.
Khan also asserted that a peace deal with the Taliban was temptingly close.
“We hope that in the coming days we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a settlement, a political solution,” Khan said.
Trump agreed with Khan about Pakistan’s special role in the region. “I think Pakistan is going to do a lot. I really do. I think Pakistan is going to make a big difference. I think Pakistan will save millions of lives in Afghanistan because I really believe that they can — they have a power that other nations don’t have with respect to Afghanistan.”
With an eye on his re-election campaign, Trump has been eager to get US troops out of Afghanistan by reaching a deal with the Taliban. Washington’s eagerness to get Pakistan to convince the Taliban to start talks with Afghan government has certainly led to the much-vaunted ‘South Asia strategy’ to fade away into the backdrop.
While sitting next to Khan, Trump also claimed that Pakistan had been “subversive” in the past in its relationship with the US, but blamed his own predecessors. “I think Pakistan can do tremendous amount against — with respect to Afghanistan. They didn’t do it and I don’t’ blame them because they were dealing with the wrong president.”
Trump stated that the US has a “better relationship with Pakistan right now than we did when we were paying that money”. He was referring to the cut in aid for military reimbursements to Pakistan.
“But all of that can come back, depending on what we work out,” he added.
Incidentally, both Khan and Trump avoided a direct answer to a question about whether India had a role in Afghanistan.
Trump went on to describe Pakistan as a “great country’ and referred to his “many friends from Pakistan. “Living in New York, I have a lot of Pakistani friends — I will tell you that. And they’re great people: smart, tough. They are tough. There’s no question about that. They’re like him (Imran Khan); they’re tough.”
He also made a positive comparison of Pakistan against Iran. When asked as question about Iran’s claim of busting an American spy network, he said that those were lies.
Turning towards Khan, he asked, “I don’t think Pakistan would ever do a thing like that, right?” Khan replied, “Definitely note.” Trump concluded, “Pakistan never lies…but Iran does, unfortunately.”
One-and-a-half years ago, Trump had complained that Pakistan had “given us nothing but lies and deceit” by granting “safe haven to the terrorists that we hunt in Afghanistan”.